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RE: re cultural essentialism

I suspect our own Andy Blunden wrote the entry copied below on Essentialism in the Encyclopedia of Marxism on the Marxist Internet Archives.  He captures my general understanding of the term and its origins and offers an thoughtful discussion.  Googling around on this term shows it has obtained a variety of uses and meanings.  It also has a history, for example, in educational philosophy in the form "educational essentialism."  I include this as a reminder of how words often travel multiple historical threads. 

- Steve



?Essentialism? is an ambiguous word, like the term ?Essence? from which it is derived, generally depending on whether the Platonic/Aristotlean or Hegelian genealogy is referred to. The word was introduced in modern times by Karl Popper in his 1945 work The Open Society. Essentialism is the assertion that there exists some meaning behind what is immediate given to sensuous perception (phenomenon). Popper took the meaning of ?essence? from the Aristotlean genealogy but held that meaning was constructed by institutions and social practices, and it was the business of science to construct definitions reflecting these objectively existing ?essences?.

Generally-speaking, ?essentialism? is used with a negative connotation in contrast to subjectivist constructivism in feminist or postmodern social theory. That is to say, ?essentialism? is taken to mean that there is an essential meaning of something that is not given in perception (perception being taken to mean sensuous contemplation), in contrast to constructivism which is taken to mean that meaning is constructed by the subject in practical or critical activity. Broadly speaking the term has the same meaning as ?metaphysics? had for positivism.

For Marxism, constructivism and essentialism are not mutually exclusive, since the meaning of essence is taken from the Hegelian genealogy rather than the subjective idealist current and is understood as social and historical, critical activity. Thus, all social and cognitive processes do have a meaning which is indeed ?constructed? by the subject, but the subject is a social subject, rather than an individual, whose activity is socially and historically conditioned. In line with the Hegelian genealogy of philosophical terms in Marxism, the ?essence? which is revealed by social practice is the dialectical unfolding of the thing through successively deeper and deeper meanings. Essentialism then is concerned not with some final essence which can never be revealed, but rather is concerned with the process of revealing ever deeper meanings.

?Essentialism? is often taken to mean the rejection of the possibility of different, opposed meanings being attached to a thing. However, for Marxism such opposing, contradictory meanings are the very nature of essential development.

from http://www.fact-index.com/e/ed/educational_essentialism.html

Essentialists believe that children should learn traditional basic subjects. Essentialists believe that these should be learned thoroughly and rigorously. An essentialist program normally teaches children progressively, from less complex skills to more complex.

An Essentialist will usually teach some set subjects similar to Reading, Writing, Literature, Foreign Languages, History, Math, Science, Art, and Music.

William Bagley (1874-1946) was an important historical Essentialist.